Decades-old child care problem receives influx of temporary pandemic relief support as parents and providers hope for long-term solutions
(WSAW) - The pandemic has exacerbated the lack of affordable, accessible, quality child care, but the issues have been going on for decades. As federal pandemic relief dollars flow in, Wisconsin is allocating more than $824 million to stabilizing the industry already on shaky ground and hoping to begin solving some of those issues too.
“This is not babysitting, these are professional brain developers.”
Many people in the early childhood education field, like Stephanie Daniels, say the general public’s understanding of how important quality child care is along with the level of respect of the workforce behind that care is still growing.
“It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to highlight child care, but they understand, you know, child care was-- there was emergency care needed,” the Aspirus Weston YMCA director said.
Wisconsin Department of Children and Families Secretary Emilie Amundson understands the long history of issues too.
“In fact, back in 2019 and early 2020 child care providers across our state and across the nation were really sounding the alarm and saying, you know, we’re kind of on a precipice.”
That sounding of the alarm began to make its way into the campaign trail ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and it caused the state of Wisconsin to invest in more research projects to gain a better understanding of the current state of child care.
However, prior research and analysis have shown the number of licensed child care providers dropping since the early 2000s, with a steep decline once the recession hit in 2008. At the same time, the long-standing program that helps low-income families pay for child care in order to work or go to school -- Wisconsin Shares Child Subsidy Program -- also saw declines in participation. According to the research and child policy advocacy organization, Kids Forward, seven years after the recession the Wisconsin Shares program served more than 12,000 fewer children (21% decline). That, in turn, impacted the subsidy payments to care providers who saw a drop of $131 million in the same time (36% decline).
The trend continues through the present. DCF communications director, Gina Paige said in an email, “We have seen a significantly lower number of hours in the past 6 months than we have seen over January-June historically. So while the number and children and families served in May 2022 may look similar to May 2021, the difference in authorized hours for that population represents a significant decrease in total utilization of the program. June has seen a return to last year’s authorization hour level, but is still 15% down from pre-pandemic levels.”
In an analysis this spring, the Wisconsin Policy Forum called the decrease “concerning.”
“...(I)t suggests many low-income parents have not yet returned to work and many providers may still be coping with reduced demand. Maintaining and improving access to affordable child care will be crucial to getting these parents and guardians – particularly mothers – back into the workforce.”
DCF bumped up its share of the cost of care for families from 35% to 80% in order to help families keep up with the rising cost of care and to pay providers the true cost of care.
“The historic pandemic investment has helped us to close our pre-pandemic--,” Sec. Amundson corrected herself as she presented grant awards in Wausau in June, “or helped us to close in on our pre-pandemic numbers. So, we’re just about back to where we were pre-pandemic, but of course, as I led with, we know that where we were pre-pandemic was not working for Wisconsin families.”
A sizeable chunk of the $824 million investment of federal dollars went to stabilizing the child care industry, helping to keep providers open and survive the impacts of the pandemic.
“Our central program, Child Care Counts, has been where we put the majority of our money because it flows right into the child care providers,” Sec. Amundson said.
More than 300 providers in north-central Wisconsin took advantage of that help, receiving more than $24 million in aid through the four different forms of funding. The YMCA locations in Wausau and Weston, which makes up the largest child care center in Marathon County, received the largest sum in the region with a combined total of more than a million dollars. Part of that money, Daniels said, went to pay their teachers more without having to raise rates on parents.
“We want to keep paying our teachers more because we’re losing them to jobs that pay more, whether it’s, you know, corporate or even the school district because they, you know, they’re paying more than we are,” she explained.
This specific stabilization program funding through American Rescue Plan Act dollars is available through 2023. The state program was allocated $351 million and DCF reports $140.1 million has been spent to date. Daniels said with the limited-time funding, they are working to figure out how to sustain this level of pay without impacting their care rates for families once the funding ends.
Other programs coming out of this larger pot of money are meant to address other problems in the industry, like barriers to providing better-quality care for children with disabilities through facility improvements, and reducing or eliminating costs for people who are trying to become early childhood educators. For now, all of this funding is also temporary.
“I understand folks’ fear that one-time funding feels scary, right, when you’re trying something new,” Sec. Amundson said. “We have to start somewhere and I think the innovations that we’ve seen so far have not solved all the way through this.”
That is why some of the funding is going to new programs in DCF’s Project Growth, a project with two different programs meant to create solutions to child care issues in each specific community selected for the programs.
‘Partner Up!’ helps businesses work with child care providers to have child care slots reserved for their employees. The business pays for a portion of those slots, the parents pay for another portion (unless the business chooses to make that an included employee benefit), and the state pays the rest to help bring down the cost to parents while paying child care providers the true cost of care.
‘Dream Up!’ supports diverse community teams to strategically plan to solve specific child care needs and issues in their community. While the Partner Up! applications are closed, the Dream Up! program will be applications for its second round of teams. Several teams and businesses in the north-central region were awarded Project Growth grants, as rural communities have been especially impacted by the decline in child care over the decades.
A team representing cross-sector organizations in Marathon County was among the recipients of a Dream Up! grant.
“We’re having to look at things differently, and I think that’s the beauty of this grant opportunity is bringing everyone at the table to look at a problem from a comprehensive way and finding out what those solutions are,” Lance Leonard, the county administrator said.
He and Wausau City Development Director Liz Brodek clarified several times that there is no planned solution; the point of the grant opportunity is to bring people together to create plans. They expect to begin meeting by the end of July.
“When we can demonstrate that kind of success, I think we have a better chance of creating that long-term funding mechanism,” Sec. Amundson explained addressing concerns about the temporary funding.
“I think if society looks at early childhood as, really, the backbone of America, because you can’t go to work and do your job if you don’t have someone to watch your children and there’s no reason that people should be quitting their jobs because they can’t find childcare,” Daniels said.
Resources and programs for parents and providers
There is a long list of resources to help parents and providers with the challenges of child care, and more are expected.
In addition to the Wisconsin Shares subsidy for families living 185% below the federal poverty level, some communities have another similar program for people who are struggling but do not meet that financial requirement. Childcaring, the child care resource and referral agency for central Wisconsin, has partnered with several community organizations such as the United Way since 2014 to offer ‘Good Start Grants.’
The program began as a Marathon County resident-only program but has since expanded to include Portage and Wood counties. Families must have a denial letter from the Wisconsin Shares program and have a gross monthly income below 300% of the federal poverty level, which is $6,938 per month for a family of four. The program pays for a portion of the child care cost based on the family’s income.
Childcaring’s most recent data from 2021 shows that Good Start Grants have helped 194 families with a total of 283 children with accessing care from 21 child care programs that were rated three stars or higher in the state’s YoungStar program (a requirement as part of the grant). Another 18 families with 27 children received Scholarship Aid in Wood County, though this program is being shifted to Good Start Grants going forward.
Resource and referral agencies, like Childcaring, are meant to be a resource for parents to help connect them to child care providers. Childcaring covers the majority of the counties in the NewsChannel 7 viewing area, including the Ho-Chunk Nation, however, Northwest Connection Family Resources covers Oneida, Vilas, Price, and Forest counties (among others) along with the Bad River, Forest County Potawatomi, Lac Courte Oreilles, Lac du Flambeau, Red Cliff, Sokaogon, and St. Croix tribes. In 2021, Childcaring referred 770 families and 956 children to child care providers.
In addition to numerous programs funneled through DCF’s Child Care Counts as mentioned previously, there are several new and pre-existing programs long-time providers and people looking to become providers can benefit from.
DCF is offering free child care foundational training through federal Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act funding. This program is aimed at new child care providers to help make training more accessible and affordable.
Also aimed at new teachers and providers looking to increase their education, DCF has made its credit-based education program for providers nearly free through ARPA funds. T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Wisconsin has provided scholarships for early childhood educators to receive higher education since 1999, Since that time, it has helped 9,000 early childhood educators and handed out more than 16,500 scholarships.
Not forgetting about the professionals who have been in the field for years, the REWARD Wisconsin Stipend Program is receiving a boost as DCF contracted with the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association to expand the program eligibility. The program provides salary supplements based on the educator’s educational attainments and time in the field with the goal to increase the overall compensation of educators, reward, retain, and encourage educators who have obtained education in their field, reduce turnover, and improve quality care. DCF said the partnership with WECA will allow “the program to financially support a majority of Wisconsin’s early childhood educators at higher stipend amounts.”
Through federal CRRSAA and ARPA funding, DCF has secured free membership to the Wisconsin Early Education Shared Services Network. WEESSN helps to pool provider resources and support their business infrastructure and programming.
Childcaring began offering funding for people interested in starting a child care program this month, which includes free foundational courses through DCF. Last year it provided seven grants totaling $3,500, which helped to open 64 new child care slots. It is holding a start-up meeting Thursday which will include information about the grant opportunity.
The North Central WI Workforce Development Board is also offering a grant to help people looking to become a certified or licensed family child care provider. Those interested in learning more are asked to contact Elsa Duranceau with the WIA Child Care Project at 715-598-4004 or email@example.com.
Using ARPA funding, DCF plans to continue developing programs to assist with a variety of different child care issues.
It will be adding a program to Child Care Counts to accommodate children with disabilities. DCF said this grant program will provide funding for providers to make minor facility improvements to accommodate children with disabilities, like building a ramp, installing a guardrail, or creating a sensory room.
It is also creating an Unregulated Provider Assistance Program grant to help unregulated providers become regulated by eliminating or reducing the cost of some of the barriers to licensing. For example, it will waive licensure fees, help with projects to get providers in compliance with regulations, provide training and certifications, and help with background checks. DCF said the program will focus primarily on the western and northern regions of the state, along with rural areas.
DCF is working to streamline the service coordination between families in the Birth to 3 program and child care systems as well. A new pilot program will allow families of children receiving Birth to 3 services through the Individualized Family Services Plan to be eligible for a child care subsidy.
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